Wednesday 5 August ~
Every football season begins with a "clampdown". Traditionally this involves referees acting on new directives to punish foul play. The result is a spate of bookings and dismissals in the early months of the season, accompanied by an outcry from managers. Referees then loosen their interpretation of the rules a little – often after a meeting with managers at which "robust views" are exchanged – and we end up roughly back to how things were before, except that at least one match official will have been maligned in highly personal terms.
The tough line for 2009-10 is a revamping of the Respect campaign, relating to the attitudes of managers and players towards referees. Yesterday the FA warned that managers will be charged with improper conduct should they make any adverse comments about referees before or after matches. Clubs will also be charged if three or more players are deemed to have ganged up on the officials. The FA stress that they are not seeking to censor criticism of individual refereeing decisions but simply to discourage accusations that officials have been biased against their team. Sometime such claims can seem blatant, as when David Moyes asked whether Mike Riley was a Man Utd fan prior to his taking charge of Everton's FA Cup semi-final last season.
But will be much harder to act upon post-match reactions, given that managers rarely offer an unbiased assessment. As a general rule they will feel that referees have had a good game if their team has won and they will usually find reasons to complain about certain decisions after a defeat, not last because it may divert attention from mistakes they made in team selection or tactics.
Managers will want to test the limits of the new directives, which means that we may see a couple of high-profile cases in the early weeks of the season, with the accused asking why they have been pulled up when a fellow manager had avoided censure for an identical comment. Neil Warnock, the doyen of ref-baiters, has already demonstrated a direction in which this might lead. After a series of contentious decisions in a Palace match last season, he read out some critical comments Sir Alex Ferguson had made about a referee a few weeks earlier, then pointed out that no action had been taken so he assumed that they could be repeated word for word.
The crux of the problem is that referees are constantly undermined by television's microscopic scrutiny of every important incident in a match. Decisions that have to be made in a split second are subsequently pored over in slow motion and from every possible angle. Managers are then often given the opportunity to review key incidents while being interviewed immediately after a game. But as the professional game is now funded by television, for better or worse, the football authorities are unlikely to raise complaints against the often overblown and self-serving post-match analysis. The only way that referees will receive more respectful treatment would be if managers resolved not to talk about the officials' decisions at all directly after a match. But the temptation is likely to be too strong to be curbed by the odd fine.